The Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption was created in 1992 to increase adoptions from foster care in North America. A decade later, the Foundation concluded that it needed to change its philanthropic approach to achieve that goal. In response, the Foundation launched the Wendy's Wonderful Kids initiative, in partnership with Wendy's, to implement and evaluate an alternative method to finding families for hard-to-place children. This case study examines the Foundation's philanthropic strategy to enhancing its effectiveness, identifies lessons that may help other foundations, and draws implications for the respective roles of private and public initiative in addressing major social issues.
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The Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption was created
in 1992 with the goal of “dramatically increasing
the adoptions of the more than 150,000 children waiting in North America's foster
care system.” A decade later, trustees and staff remained committed to this goal—but
with more children entering the foster care system than leaving it, they concluded
“we're not winning.” In response, they decided the Foundation had to expand beyond
its former strategy of raising awareness about adoption. Thus, in 2004, the Foundation
launched the Wendy's Wonderful Kids initiative, in partnership with Wendy's. The initiative's
purpose was to implement and evaluate an alternative method of recruiting
permanent families for hard-to-place foster care children. Foundation trustees, staff,
and grantees agree that the initiative has helped to find adoptive homes for children
who would otherwise still be in the foster care system. In 2007, the Dave Thomas
Foundation for Adoption was awarded the Adoption Excellence Award from the U.S.
Department of Health and Human Services for Wendy's Wonderful Kids.
In order to reach this point, the Foundation not only had to reconsider how to bring
about change in the foster care system, it had to reconsider its approach to philanthropy.
This case study examines the philanthropic strategy that emerged from that
process and identifies lessons it may offer for other foundations wishing to enhance their impact. The Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption is relatively modest in size.
Its assets were less than $8 million at the time it launched Wendy's Wonderful Kids. Its
strategy offers one model for how other small foundations can mobilize their financial
resources to try and have an impact on important social issues. Essential to this strategy
are to identify and focus on one specific issue, to develop a deep knowledge
about it, and to remain committed to it over the long-term. The Wendy's Wonderful
Kids Initiative represents this approach as applied to foster care adoption, but it is also
an approach that can be applied to other fields. Larger foundations that span multiple
issues may find it a useful strategy for some subset of their programs.
The Foundation adopts a business model in its philanthropy, through its emphasis on
producing measurable results (numbers of children adopted). However, the Foundation
always does this within its guiding framework of focusing on harder-to-place children,
and its willingness to take the time necessary to achieve that goal. Grantees therefore
do not feel pressured to produce higher adoption numbers by focusing on easierto-
place children or by putting children into homes that may not be suitable. The
Foundation can take this approach because it combines business principles with a deep
professional knowledge of the foster care adoption field. It uses that knowledge to modify
the business model. While holding grantees accountable for performance, the
Foundation also makes a commitment to continue to provide them with support.
Thus, Wendy's Wonderful Kids grants are made for a one-year period, but grantees and
the Foundation understand that the grantee will be renewed as long as progress is
The way in which the Foundation adopts business principles offers timely insights for the
foundation field. As foundations have increasingly focused on ways to enhance their
effectiveness, they have turned to the business sector for models and required
grantees to produce quantitative evidence of success. The Dave Thomas Foundation
for Adoption's model offers an important lesson for those considering this path: while
business principles can be usefully incorporated into philanthropy, they should not be
applied in a wholesale or rigid fashion to organizations that function in very different
fields. Rather, these principles must be adapted in ways that are applicable to a nonprofit's
particular focus. In that way, quantitative results won't become the tail that
wags the dog.
The Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption made a strategic choice about how to
approach a major social issue, namely finding suitable adoptive homes for hardto-
place children in foster care. The Foundation decided to support an innovative
method of finding families for these children. In doing so, the Foundation's approach
points to supporting experimentation and innovation as one important role for the private
sector. Yet this role has its limitations. The Wendy's Wonderful Kids' recruitment
model is labor intensive and costly. Therefore, sustaining and expanding the use
of the model would require funding far beyond the Dave Thomas Foundation for
Adoption's financial resources—and most likely beyond the resources of private philanthropy.
By contrast, the funding required appears far more modest when compared to the government's current expenditures on foster care and adoption. From
the government's perspective, it may be both feasible and helpful to allocate a portion
of expenditures to promote wider use of this recruitment model, as a more effective
strategy for finding permanent homes for hard-to-place children. Were this to
happen, the Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption's philanthropic strategy could
someday also provide a case study of how the private and public sectors can work
together to develop innovative solutions to major social issues that neither sector can
solve on its own.
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